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The Tesla of Garbage Trucks Wants to Make City Buses More Sustainable

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Wrightspeed is outfitting Wellington, New Zealand, with a cutting-edge electric bus system

Wellington, New Zealand, had a serious issues with its beloved trolley system. Decades old, the vehicles rely on a system of overhead wires the city can’t afford to maintain, so it looked like municipal authorities would need to swap out the clean transport system for dirty diesel buses. But before the city revamped its mass transit system, a third way presented itself, a high-tech, more sustainable solution that may foreshadow a shift in how cities run their fleets of heavy vehicles, such as buses and garbage trucks.

Enter Wrightspeed, a San Jose, California-based company that sells heavy-duty electric motors that can move oversized buses, delivery vans, and even garbage truck more efficiently, with less fuel and much less noise.

"People assume mass transit is green, but to make those vehicles more efficient, you need a different technology," says Ian Wright, Wrightspeed's founder. "What works for a car won’t work for a transit bus or a garbage truck. It’s a whole different game."

A former Tesla Motors founder, Wright started his own company on a seemingly simple premise, applying the massive sustainability gains of electric engines to the least sustainable vehicles on the road. The company’s electric motors, battery packs, and a gas turbine can provide lumbering, multi-ton motor vehicles with 60 percent better fuel efficiency and 90 percent cleaner emissions. It was a simple choice for Wellington to go with Wrightspeed technology, which will be installed in the city’s trolleys over the next year as part of a US$30 million deal announced last week.

"Wrightspeed’s powertrains outperformed the competition on nearly every metric and will provide us with the fuel source flexibility and economically compelling technology to future-proof our transit assets," says Zane Fulljames, CEO of NZ Bus. "For example, the technology enables us to reimagine our trolley buses, rather than decommissioning them."

The Wrightspeed hybrid system—an electric motor with extensive power and torque, a computer-controlled high-tech gear box and four-speed transmission, and a battery that’s charged by a gas-fueled turbine range extender called the Fulcrum—provides the push needed to move a heavy vehicle up hills with an electric engine, while giving it the extra juice needed to last through a long, arduous route with multiple stops. While the engine on a Prius works for a car or taxi, it’s just not powerful enough for a bus.

Wrightspeed doesn’t work for every heavy vehicle: schools buses are only active a few hours a day, so it’s not worth the extra investment in these high-tech engine, and the economics also don’t pan out for a long-range cross-country bus line. But for the backbone of urban transport and heavy-duty hauling, the system saves fuel costs and reduces emissions, with the more expensive upgrade paying for itself in three to four years.

The New Zealand deal marks Wrightspeed’s first move beyond providing delivery vehicles, and as Wright sees it, a large new market for its sustainable technology.

"A city car such as a Prius burns about 150-200 gallons a year, and does it pretty cleanly," says Wright. "A garbage truck can go through 14,000 gallons a year. That’s a lot more pollution, and a lot more potential savings."

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Driverless Bus System Showcases Future of Public Transit [Curbed]